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Pete Enns & The Bible for Normal People

Miguel De La Torre- Diverse Voices in Biblical Scholarship

In this episode of The Bible for Normal People Podcast, Pete and Jared talk with Professor Miguel De La Torre about why we all need to seek out diverse biblical interpretations as they explore the following questions:

  • What does it mean to “decolonize” our interpretations of the Bible?
  • What does it mean to read the Bible deductively?
  • Why is interpreting the Bible in community important?
  • What is Miguel’s starting point for interpreting the Bible?
  • How do we get close to the “truest” reading of the Bible?
  • How did Justo González interpret the commandment of keeping the Sabbath?
  • What is W.E.B. Du Bois’ idea of “double consciousness”?
  • Who gets to write Bible commentaries?
  • How can each person diversify their understandings of the Bible? 
  • How have people’s understandings of the Bible been colonized throughout history?
  • What can each person do to diversify the biblical interpretations they are exposed to?
  • Why is it important for every generation to interpret the Bible for themselves?

Tweetables

Pithy, shareable, less-than-280-character statements from Miguel De La Torre you can share. 

  • “Most individuals who read the Bible specifically with an eye on how to life their lives, read the Bible in a deductive manner.”@DrDeLaTorre
  • “Unfortunately, many people believe that the biblical text only has one meaning, and whatever that meaning is, is the one that I came up with, therefore it must be true.” @DrDeLaTorre
  • “In reality, we all read the Bible from our social location, from the area that we occupy. And when we do that, we read into the Bible our own social location, our own struggles, our own difficulties, and our own joys.” @DrDeLaTorre
  • “We cannot read the Bible if not from our social location. We all bring something to the reading, and the concern is, when one group of people make their objective reading subjective for everyone else.” @DrDeLaTorre
  • “We have an economic system that works best when you have a 5-6% unemployment rate, of which mostly they are people of color.” @DrDeLaTorre
  • “We need to truly read the works of other communities we’re not a part of so that we ourselves could be challenged on how to not only read the biblical text, but on how to do ministry.” @DrDeLaTorre

Mentioned in This Episode

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Read the transcript

[Introduction]

0:00

Pete: You’re listening to The Bible for Normal People. The only God-ordained podcast on the internet. I’m Pete Enns.

Jared: And I’m Jared Byas.

[Jaunty Intro Music]

Pete: Hey everybody, welcome to the podcast. Our topic today is diverse voices in biblical scholarship, and our guest is Miguel De La Torre.

Jared: Yeah, he’s a professor at Iliff School of Theology in Social Ethics and Latinx Studies, and you’ll hear in just a little bit, Pete got that wrong, and I think for good reason. The amount of writing he does on biblical scholarship, which I always find fascinating that he is talking about ethics, social ethics, through the lens of the Bible, which I think a lot of us at least grew up wanting to do.

Pete: Yeah, I just, again, my bias, right. I just assumed, you know, from reading his stuff, so. But anyway, so he’s written about 30,000 – 40,000 books I think. Just go to his website, he has a lot of stuff there and then very diverse topics like the politics of Jesus, reading the Bible from the margins, something called post-colonial theory. We talk a little bit about colonialism in the episode. But yeah, just, you know, very enlightening to bring someone onto the podcast who knows a lot about a particular area that we didn’t have, Jared. We just, we did not grow up, the seminaries he’s critiquing, I mean, you know, it’s not a cheap shot, it describes very much our experience in seminary.

Jared: Right.

Pete: And for me, graduate school too.

Jared: Well, and one thing that maybe we can talk about here for just a minute before the podcast starts, is I kept thinking in the back of my mind how this intersects with politics. Because I wondered if some of our listeners might think this is a political, and I guess it pains me to think that listeners might think this is a political issue of diversity in biblical scholarship. And I kept trying to find out why it would be the case, but throughout the episode –

Pete: Yeah.

Jared: I don’t know why this should be a political thing to talk about diversity and having multiple voices in how we read and interpret our text and how it’s not great for all of us that we’ve only read it through one particular lens for most of biblical, like, interpretation history.

Pete: Right. Yeah, because a dominant culture of a particular, maybe socio-economic class and skin color and gender has been at the top of the roost. And often, we’re blinded to the effects that our interpretation has on other people. But I talked about like, the ethics of hermeneutics and I didn’t really explain sort of what I meant. I was like, why are you reading the texts, what effects does it have on other people, and it’s just good to hear from people, you know, who understand that far better than I do who will talk about it and, you know, I always leave a situation like this where I want to think differently about what I do.

Jared: Yeah.

Pete: And why I do what I do.

Jared: Good. Well, and I would hope, maybe, many of our listeners will come away with that too. If nothing else, put a book or two in your Amazon cart or, not probably, local bookstores –

Pete: Yes. Local bookstores.

Jared: Once we can get to local bookstores –

Pete: Just wash your hands.

Jared: But grab a copy of a book from someone who has a background that’s different than yours and see how it might expand your worldview.

Pete: All right, let’s get to it.

Jared: All right.

[Music begins]

Miguel: There’s this idea, this mythology, that the Bible can be read objectively. But in reality, we all read the Bible from our social location, from the area that we occupy. And when we do that, we read into the Bible our own social location, our own struggles, our own difficulties, and our own joys.

[Music ends]

Pete: Miguel, welcome to our podcast.

Miguel: Glad to be here.

Pete: Wonderful, well listen, you know, you’re a biblical scholar, and maybe just introduce yourself to our listeners, just, how did you get into this and what drove you into this lucrative field of teaching and biblical scholarship where we’re famous and we make a lot of money?

Miguel: Of course. Well, first of all, it’s interesting, because I’m not really a biblical scholar. I’m an ethicist.

Pete: Oh!

Miguel: But I’m an ethicist who really takes the biblical text serious in my own work.

Pete: Okay.

Miguel: And I’ve written a lot of books about the Bible, sometimes –

Pete: Yeah, I mean, you could’ve fooled me, because you do that biblical side very well. So, okay, you do wear many hats.

Miguel: Yes. But yeah, you’re right, I’ve written a lot of books on the biblical texts, and a lot of people think I’m a biblical scholar, but in reality, I’m just an ethicist.

Pete: Just an ethicist? Now that’s not right! Just?!

Miguel: [Laughter]

Pete: That seems pretty important, that might even be more important than being a biblical scholar. Anyway, so go ahead, how did you get into this field like, wanting to teach and particularly in this area of being an ethicist?

4:48

Miguel: Sure. Well, it’s interesting, because quite frankly since I was nineteen years old, I was a capitalist. I owned my own real estate company for a couple of decades, and I was a very successful businessman in Miami, Florida. And then, I went to church one day, it was a Southern Baptist church, and I basically started going to church for very deep theological reasons – the girl I wanted to go out with would only go out with me if I went to church with her on Sunday.

Pete: [Laughter]

Miguel: So, I started going to church on Sunday, but even though we broke up, one day I walked down the aisle, gave my life to Jesus, and really got into this understanding of Christianity and the biblical text and really got into it. At one point, I decided I wanted to leave my business and go to seminary and become a minister. So, I dissolved my company and I went to the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, literally during the years of the fundamentalist takeover.

Pete: Oh, okay. You were there then. My goodness, all right.

Miguel: Oh, yes. I was there during those fun years and I had a job at the library. So, while I was going to class and we kept learning about theology and biblical texts, it really wasn’t resonating with me. So, because I was looking at the library at night, I started pulling out books from the shelves that had Latino names on them, not knowing who Gustavo Gutiérrez was, not knowing who Bonino was, not knowing who the Boff brothers were. And I started reading that, and in that reading, I was very radicalized because I began to read theology and the Bible through the perspective of different voices, usually the voices of the poor and the marginalized and the disenfranchised. When I finished my theological education, I realized that there was no Southern Baptist church that was going to hire me as a pastor, so I did what every unemployed grad student does, I went ahead and got my Ph.D.

Pete: [Laughter]

Miguel: And when I finished, I got a job at Hope College where I taught there for a while, and now I’m teaching at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado, as the Professor of Social Ethics in Latinx Studies.

Pete: I guess, so one thing that came up as you were talking is the ethics of hermeneutics, you know, the ethic of having a hermeneutic, of reading the Bible for an ethical purpose, which is something that, you know, many people are not taught. It’s like, you analyze the text and you come away with an original meaning, but I imagine that you probably have a different perspective that it’s really about, there’s a purpose that these texts can serve for the greater good of people and not just to write papers or write books.

Miguel: Oh absolutely, and I would even go a little further. Most individuals who read the Bible specifically with an eye on how to life their lives, read the Bible in a deductive manner. And what I mean by that is that they read the text, and they decide, they deduce from the text how they should be living their lives, what ethical acts they need to be engaged in. But, to read the Bible from the margins and read the Bible from the perspective of the disenfranchised, we turn that model on its head. So, in the doing of the gospel message, in the midst of feeding the hungry, and giving water to the thirty, and clothing the naked, and taking in the alien among us, we then go back to the Bible and then we read the text and now we are able to interpret the text from the social location of us doing the gospel. And in this way, the text really becomes alive. We begin to truly understand, I think, the message of what the text is talking about.

Jared: How is that, can you maybe break that down a little bit, Miguel, in terms of the mechanics of that? Why does that make a difference for someone versus the, you know, the first way of reading you talked about, this deductive way versus the get into the social context, into the behaviors and actions ethically and then reading it through that lens. What difference does that make?

Miguel: It makes all the different in the world. Unfortunately, many people believe that the biblical text only has one meaning, and whatever that meaning is, is the one that I came up with, therefore it must be true. So, there’s this idea, this mythology that the Bible can be read objectively. But in reality, we all read the Bible from our social location, from the area that we occupy. And when we do that, we read into the Bible our own social location, our own struggles, our own difficulties, and our own joys.

9:56

What occurs all too often, is that while every biblical interpretation is truly objective, what has happened is that one group, the predominant dominant culture, has made their objective interpretation of the text subjective for everybody else. So, because they have the power to make their objective interpretation subjective, we then believe that that interpretation must be true. But if instead, we all come to the text with just a piece of understanding it from our social location, then together in community we could get a fuller picture of what the text is probably talking about.

Pete: Could you flesh that you just a little bit more, the terms objective and subjective interpretation. That might be a little bit hazy for some of our listeners, so maybe flesh that out a bit?

Miguel: Sure. When I say an objective interpretation, that assumes that how I interpret the Bible is absolutely true, that somehow, I have reached the true message of that biblical text. Therefore, it’s totally objective. I’m not –

Pete: So, irrespective of your social location.

Miguel: Right.

Pete: Right, okay. So just sort of up there, just neutral and correct.

Miguel: Exactly.

Pete: Okay.

Miguel: So, the problem with that is, that we cannot read the Bible if not from our social location. We all bring something to the reading, and the concern is, when one group of people make their objective reading subjective for everyone else.

Jared: Mm hmm.

Pete: Right. So, the, yeah. So, I guess, you know, we are talking about those in power, the white western approach to reading the Bible, which, sort of has assumed a neutrality and not being effected by their social – now other people might be affected by their social location, but they’re not.

Miguel: Exactly.

Pete: Right. And that’s sort of, that’s, I mean, people don’t talk that way as much anymore as they used to, perhaps. But, it’s still there, right? There’s still an assumption that I can get at this truth. I mean, especially with maybe more conservative Christians, right Jared? It’s just like, “I’m just reading the text, I’m just getting what it means.”

Jared: Yeah, well, you know, with that Miguel, one thing, maybe you can comment on this, because I think what you say Pete, we’ve maybe gotten past that a little bit, but I think what it is, is not so much we’ve gotten past it, it’s more that there’s still this belief that now we can recognize it. I think in more conservative circles, we recognize we come at it from a very particular perspective, but I think the goal is to try to rid ourselves of that social context and location and get to the objective, once for all, absolute meaning. And we all need to be in that together, we all are trying to shed our contingencies and our subjectivities and our social context, and come at this one universal utopia interpretation, but I hear you saying that maybe it’s actually, it’s not such a liability, it might be an asset to have all these voices from all their contexts to give a fuller meaning.

Miguel: And while that may be true that we need all these voices to get a fuller meaning, I think we need to be humble enough to realize we’ll never get to that fuller meaning. We’ll always fall short, because every generation must read the Bible from their own time period as well. It’s not just in this moment in time, it’s also throughout history. So how the Bible was read and interpreted and used a couple of hundred years ago is very different than the way it is read and interpreted today. And that’s a good thing, because we’re dealing with different problems today than we were centuries ago.

Jared: Yeah, reminds me of someone was talking about parenting the other day, and how you can never be the perfect parent, because once you get the two-year-old stage down they become three, and then they become four. And so, once you finally kind of get a grasp of the four-year time, the times change, and that’s something that’s always going to be at play, is the changing times.

Miguel: The way I try to think about it is that if I say that the wisdom of the text is infinite, then my finite mind can never totally capture it, nor can the finite mind of my generation of any group. All we can do is as Paul would say, see through a glass dimly, one day hoping to see, you know, fully.

Pete: I’d love to hear you riff a little bit on a question that I know would come up in certain contexts here. If that’s how we describe the Bible, it’s sort of like infinitely, there are many infinite possibilities in engaging the text. But people will ask, well then, how will I know what to do? How will I know what to live? I need this book to tell me. How would you help someone who’s thinking like that, maybe think differently?

15:02

Miguel: I guess I would say that we need to be very careful in suspicion whenever we think that we can figure out how we must act based on one interpretation. History has shown us that has always been very dangerous. Life is messy and struggling to try to understand how to life an ethical life is also messy. And sometimes, we will get it wrong, and that’s part of our humanity. So, I would try to really advise about moving away from this concept that if I only know what the right interpretation is, then I’m going to be okay, because we probably will never know what the right interpretation is.

Jared: Are there boundaries to that? Are there other ways that you would say this is a bad interpretation, can we use value words like good or bad when we’re talking about interpretations?

Miguel: Well, I would hope we would, yes. So for me, the way I’ve wrestled with this, is that I look, my entry into the Bible is through John 10:10, which says “I have come to give life and give life abundantly.” So, the idea is, if there’s an interpretation that does not bring life or life abundantly, then there’s something wrong with that interpretation. And I could give you a couple of examples. When, in Ephesians Paul says, “slaves, obey your masters,” well, that doesn’t give abundant life to slaves. So, somehow the interpretation slaves must obey their masters is a wrong interpretation and therefore it must be rejected. Or “wives, be obedient to your husbands.” Again, that does not provide a full and abundant life for women. Now, you’ll probably say, but wait a minute, I’m now dismissing some parts of the Bible. Isn’t that dangerous? Jesus does this himself and teaches us how to do it.

Pete: [Laughter]

Right.

Miguel: I mean, he said, “you’ve heard it said, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, but I say unto you, if anyone slaps you on one check, turn the other.” So, Jesus is basically saying this passage in the Bible that said an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth which is found in the Torah, that’s wrong. Don’t do that.

Pete: Mm hmm.

Miguel: Instead, learn to turn the other cheek.

Pete: Right.

Miguel: So, the question then becomes, when I read the text, and Joshua tells me to commit genocide and kill everything that has life, I have to reject that interpretation because it does not bring abundant life.

Pete: You know, I think it’s, what you said is very important, Miguel, because the Bible is more than just a collection of verses. We’re actually watching an approach to interpretation in front of us, and that is something that can be a model for us to, I mean, I don’t know if this is the right word to use, maybe you wouldn’t use it, but even to sort of interrogate scripture. Not to be suspicious of it, but to say, listen, I might be able to understand why they said something like this at a certain time, but today, this does not bring life. This is something else. And so, we have to move beyond the confines of the text, is that, does that accurately, at least from your point of view, or would you put that a different way?

Miguel: Oh, absolutely. Not only must we interrogate scripture, we really have to wrestle with it.

Pete: Mm hmm.

Miguel: Like Jacob wrestled with God, and whenever you wrestle with God, you usually end up limping away. You know, it’s not, you know, it’s not this intellectual exercise. A true wrestling with the scripture sometimes hurts.

Pete: Yeah.

Jared: So, in our context, Pete mentioned kind of the white, middle class, upper class, western way of interpreting. Can you maybe give a concrete example of what that looks like, and what an alternative way of interpreting, maybe there’s an example from a text or something, so we can see concretely what these different viewpoints or different interpretations might look like?

Miguel: Sure, of course. So, let’s take something a little simple, like one of the commandments. The commandment says seven days you will work, but on the seventh day you shall not do no work, you shall keep it as the Sabbath unto the Lord. Something like that, again, I don’t have a Bible in front of me, I’m going by memory now. So, you know, and I’m sure your listeners have gone to church and I’m sure the pastor has preached on this particular commandment. Seven days you shall work, the Sabbath, you shall keep it. Do no work on that day. And more than likely, they probably heard a sermon that had three points and a poem.

19:57

We’ll skip the poem, but usually the three points might be something like, we keep the Sabbath because God commands it; we keep the Sabbath because it’s a day of renewal, a day of resting from doing all this hard work; and maybe a third point, we keep the Sabbath because it’s a time to be for family and focus on what’s important in life. And that’s a pretty good sermon, which I’m sure many people have heard, and many people have preached, if I’m not, you now, and I’m sure you’ve probably heard those sermons yourself. Now, Justo González, who writes a book called Santa Biblia, talks about a preacher who was also putting together a sermon on this particular verse. But he was a Latino preaching to a congregation made up mostly of migrant workers and day laborers. So, he began by asking the congregation, how many of you were able to work five days last week? And a bunch of hands went up. How many of you were able to work six days last week? And very few hands went up. And then the preacher asked, what does this tell us about our society that prevents us from keeping God’s commandment, six days you shall work.

Pete: [Laughter]

Jared: Hmm.

Miguel: You see, the reason why we found the first example so comforting is because most people who hear this are white, middle class, economically privileged, who probably have a job which they just take for granted. So, they work six days and if allowed, they’ll probably work seven days, but taking the day off becomes crucial. But for the poor of the world, for the day laborers, for the ones who are struggling to even survive, the issue is not taking the day off, the issue is being able to work six days. And this is what I mean by reading the Bible from one’s own social context. So, now if you asked me, so which interpretation is truer, is closer to something that we could say is more true? I would argue that it is always the interpretation coming from the margins of society, because not only do they understand what it means to live in a society that is rich, they also understand what it means to live in a society that is poor. This is what W. E. B. Du Bois talks about double consciousness. Now, we could stop the interpretation there, but we could also take it now one step further. And that is, in this country, if I was to work full time at minimum wage, which is about, what, $7.50, $8.00 an hour? I will be making less than, what you call it, than a living wage. There won’t be a county in the United States that I could afford rent. So, what this tells me is, the reason, well what this means is that the reasons wages are mostly kept low is by making sure you have a reserve army of laborers. If you have people who are willing to take your job, then you could afford to pay lower wages. In this country, unemployment is usually highest among African Americans and Latinos. So, we have an economic system that works best when you have 5% – 6% unemployment rate, of which mostly they are people of color.

Pete: Mm hmm.

Miguel: So, not only does this verse critique the idea that somehow, I need to just take one day off, instead focuses on trying to have a job for six days. We have an economic system that is designed so that I don’t work six days. For in fact, if I work forty hours, then the company has to pay me benefits. So, they make sure I work less than forty hours a week. So, this little verse that we’ve always interpreted as just taking a day off, really has deep economic consequences to even our star portfolio, because if we were truly paying a living wage, wages are an expense, which therefore means that they return on our stock will go down, which means our retirement fund will be worth less. So, do you see how we’re all so in, connected to this verse economically that we’ve always interpreted as just taking a day off? That’s what I mean by reading the Bible from the margins.

Pete: Right. To take into account the real situation of those who are hearing the verse and what is the, the liberating and comforting, what’s the word of God to them, I guess is what we’re saying.

24:55

And that may sound different at different times under different circumstances, and different peoples who are listening to the text and listening to the sermon. So that’s, yeah, I guess that’s what you’re saying, right? I mean, it really is, to think there’s one meaning in here, in this Sabbath command, seems a bit shallow.

Miguel: But what has occurred over history is because the dominant culture gets to write the commentaries that basically focus on the importance of taking the day off. That then becomes the truth of that verse.

Pete: Mm hmm.

[Music begins]

Miguel: And what I’m saying is, there was so much more in that verse if we begin to read it from the perspective of the poor and the marginalized and the disenfranchised.

[Producers group endorsement]

[Music ends]

Jared: Okay, so, let’s back up, because you’re taking about the economic system behind even this one small verse about Sabbath, and then you brought into it, well, the reason we read it from the dominant perspective is because people writing the commentaries are from the dominant perspective, which is really to say there is something about biblical scholarship in the way that it’s written and the way that we employ people or maybe the way it goes all the way back to the people we admit to graduate programs, that there is some lack of equality in that system as well. Is that what you’re saying too, that the people that are writing the books that the pastors are reading in order to prepare these sermons are largely written by white people?

Miguel: Absolutely. And not just white people, but individuals who have got, who have received theological training in some of the most prestigious theological schools in the country who basically only learned, you know, white European ways of doing interpretations. So, when I went through theological school, you know, of course, you know, besides having to learn Greek and Hebrew and reading all these great German biblical scholars, I never had to read any scholars who were African American or Latinx or Asian American or Indigenous. In other words, I read them anyway for my own knowledge, but here’s the thing: all my white colleagues who only studied the German giants were considered educated. I, when I studied the perspective from the margins, I was considered as doing this interesting side elective stuff, not true scholarship. So, there was a bias within the academy, which is changing, and I will say that, but not when I was going through school, against those of us who insist on rejecting euro-centric biblical interpretations and only focusing on interpretations that come from marginalized communities.

Pete: So, when we’re talking about diverse voices in biblical scholarship, it’s not just, well, we need to hire more people. We need to hire more non-white people. It’s the system itself is rigged in a way, or it’s been rigged, maybe it’s getting better, but the system itself works against that happening.

Miguel: Oh, absolutely. I mean, the way the theological system works is that schools, the faculty in the school are the ones who determine what other faculty member they want to hire. And usually, they hire people who are like them, who think like them, who have the same philosophical underpinnings as they do, and who read the biblical text the way they do. Seldom is there this desire to bring in voices that have always been considered, from the very beginning, not to really be scholarly at all.

29:48

And then what many times happens, is that even when students of color go to these particular top-notch theological schools, what they learn is how to read the text through the eyes of white euro-centric scholars. So, they may have a brown or black face, but they’ve learned to speak with white voices. So, it’s not just, let’s just hire some more people of color, it really is decolonizing our minds from just reading the Bible through the lens of euro-centric writers and thinkers.

Jared: Can you say more about what that phrase means, because I would guess a lot of people have heard it, but not in this context and maybe not enough to really understand what it means to decolonize. And the way you said it, it sounds like it’s connected to the idea that there are even African Americans or Latino biblical scholars who have, in a sense, I don’t know if it’s the right word, like, been white washed and reprogrammed to think this way because this is the right way to do it. But maybe, can you just unpack ‘decolonize’ a little bit?

Miguel: Of course. And I think the word you just used, whitewash, is an excellent way of understanding the colonizing of one’s mind. If my mind is colonized, in other words, if I learn to see reality through white eyes, through the eyes of the dominant culture, through the eyes of people who historically have oppressed people of color, then what happens is that I begin to believe that truth can only be understood through euro-centric thinkers. So, I look to my oppressors for my own liberation. And that could be very damning, to be honest with you. To decolonize my mind, and this is a process I’ve been going through now, and I’m not even close to getting to the final point of having my mind decolonized, but to decolonize my mind means, how do I begin to look at reality from my own social location, from my own culture, using my own cultural symbols and not using the verbiage and the way of thinking of the colonizers.

Pete: Of those who mean you no good.

Miguel: Yeah, those who have historically justified my colonization and my oppression.

Pete: Yeah.

Miguel: And a good example is, you know, and we all know this, that during slave times, you had preachers that were hired by the slave owners to come in and preach to the servants, to the slaves about obeying your master, and not stealing from the master, and not running away from the master. That’s a colonizing process in where you try to teach the oppressed how to be domesticated, how to be subjugated to how the master was not only reading the Bible but teaching them how to read the Bible. So, the decolonized methodology is to begin by saying, no, these interpretations were designed to maintain my oppression, so I’m going to reject them, and I’m going to learn to read the text from my own eyes, or though my own eyes.

Pete: So, what do you think then, is the way to help correct the problem, and let’s stay with academia. You know, you’re a professor, I’m a professor. Let’s stay in that world, like, practically speaking, what can happen to, over time, to change the situation where we don’t have colonization happening, we have true diversity of voices.

Miguel: Well, it really begins with the professor’s syllabus. If one of your listeners is a student at a theological school, and they look at the syllabus, and all that’s on the syllabus are European thinkers, and there are no women, there are no people of color, there are no queer thinkers, then they are truly not getting an education. They basically are learning what people used to think a hundred years ago. But like I said, unfortunately, many times professors are basically teaching what they were taught when they went through graduate school, which is, you know, the so-called classics. So, I would say, number one, we need to begin to bring these voices into the classroom. And secondly, these need to be an integral part of the full curriculum, not elective classes. It’s not like saying, well, I’m going to take a class on Latino theology as an elective. This needs to be central to the whole curriculum.

34:49

Pete: Yeah. That’s a hard step to take because, like, it’s hard to kickstart that if the professors are themselves maybe, fumbling through that, and might not even see themselves the importance of diversifying their bibliography. 

Miguel: And I think this is why the students must hold the professors accountable. You know, because you’re right, many professors are still teaching stuff which was great back in 1950 when we lived in a more racist and segregated society, but we’re not in that time period anymore. If that’s, if the syllabus is not diverse, then students have to demand that. I mean, the students are paying good money to be in that school. And quite frankly, any school that doesn’t have diverse syllabus, a student should really think about going elsewhere.

Pete: Right.

Jared: It seems like, I just want to think systemically here, because it feels, the challenge might be that, and I’m kind of grasping at straws because I’m not exactly sure what the categories might be, but if you’re judging, if I’m teaching a course on biblical interpretation, and I’m trying to judge what the curriculum is going to look like, there’s already a particular framework that I’m passing judgment through, there’s a filter through which I’m saying, yup, this is in, this is not, and that filter is already biased toward a certain way of doing biblical interpretation. So, in some ways, I guess I wonder, there’s a challenge there where I wonder even for a lot of folks, if the, like what you said, maybe the African American author who gets onto the syllabus is the one who has been whitewashed and is already playing the same game and playing by the same rules. It almost seems like there’s a large element of trust to say, maybe, asking other colleagues who are minorities or from marginalized people groups and saying what do you guys think, represents a good, you know, representation of scholarship from your social context, and then just trusting that. Because I feel like if we, or if kind of the euro-centric person who’s been trained under that model is trying to filter that, the filter is already biased in some way. Is that making sense?

Miguel: Oh, it definitely does. And I think a true academic is always going to need to ask others who are experts in the field for their advice. A good example, I’m teaching this quarter, I’m teaching a class called Biblical Ethics, and to practice what I preach, every disenfranchised group, you know, I have a book from that group written by scholars in that group, so we have an Asian American perspective, a Latinx perspective, an African American perspective. But for example, when I was looking for an Asian American scholar, I called a friend of mine who is Asian American biblical scholar and I asked them, what’s the latest book out there that I need to be reading to better understand an Asian American perspective to the Bible? And he gave me a couple of books and I chose one. So, you know, I don’t know everything, but I should know enough people that get help to diversify my class and my syllabus. And the ones who are going to benefit are my students who will now be exposed to all of these different perspectives.

Jared: And that in itself, it seems like, is an act of decentering yourself to even say I need help and allow other peoples to influence your classroom and how you’re setting that up, which seems to be an important step in this process too.

Miguel: Absolutely. Now, if I wanted to teach a class on just the Bible ethics from the perspective of white Europeans, you know, I don’t need to call anybody, I know what all the books are. I mean, I have to know them just to get my Ph.D. But to move beyond that comfort zone means that I have to now read books that I wasn’t planning to read before and that’s part of the academic life anyway, of growing and learning new things.

Jared: Is that a step that someone, because a lot of our listeners won’t have gone to seminary, aren’t planning to go into academia or anything like that, but could we translate that into congregational life and holding pastors and leaders accountable in terms of, you know, what resources are they using as they develop their sermons and that they’re preaching from. Is there also a call for everyday congregation members to be able to do that, and maybe do you have an experience on what a healthy way of doing that might be?

Miguel: Well, I mean, I would be disappointed if the preacher is not reading books written from other communities that the preacher doesn’t belong to. So, and it’s not just white people reading the writings of people of color, it’s also people of color reading the writings of other groups of color. We need to truly read the works of other communities we’re not a part of so that we ourselves could be challenged on how to not only read the biblical text, but on how to do ministry.

39:50

And as the world becomes more diverse, churches are going to be dealing with a diverse world coming to their front door. And if we’re not, if we’re unaware of how that diversity of that community works, we really can’t be good ministers. So no, yes, churches themselves, just like a professor needs to diverse their syllabus, pastors need to diverse their library and not just read the same thinkers that they read when they were going through seminary. And congregations, you know, your listeners who may not be ministers or professors, they need to branch out and go on Amazon and Google some books and expand their own minds as well – if they’re serious about understanding the biblical text.

Pete: Yeah.

Jared: Well, that’s an important point, that’s a great emphasis maybe as we wrap up our time is, you didn’t say if you’re going to understand the biblical text from a ____ perspective, it’s, if you want to understand the biblical text, period, the you have to include this diversity. And I think that’s a really important point to make, is it’s not something extra, it’s inherent in understanding the biblical text itself, is this diversity and understanding it from different communities.

Miguel: I couldn’t say it better. Absolutely. If not, we’re wasting our time.

Pete: Mmm. All right, so Miguel, you gave an example earlier about the Sabbath and biblical interpretation. I’m wondering, you know, in the few minutes that we have left, if maybe there’s another example that you think is particularly striking that might be just a good model for people to hold on, to say, okay, I think I understand what he’s getting at.

Miguel: Sure. So, let’s look at the New Testament. I’m sure we’re all familiar with the parable of the vineyard owner in where the story is that the vineyard owner goes out looking for laborers. So, at 6:00 AM he goes to the Home Depot, finds a couple of people hanging out there. He sends them to his vineyard to work. Around 9:00, he goes to the bodega, sees some more people, sends them to his vineyard to work. At noon, he goes to the barrio and sees some more workers and sends them to his vineyard to work. And at 3:00, just towards the end, he sees some more folks that’s walking the streets and says, go to my vineyard and I’ll make sure I pay you, and they go to do some work. And then he begins to pay everybody beginning with the last who came, and he pays everybody the same amount of money. Now let me pause there for a second. Isn’t Jesus being a little unfair here? I mean, the guy who works in 6:00 AM is getting paid the same amount of money than the one that only worked three or four hours?

Pete: I have a feeling that I’m not going to answer that question because I’m going to be wrong no matter what I say, so.

[Laughter]

Miguel: [Laughter]

But no, I would say most of your listeners would say, this isn’t fair! I mean, I worked all day and I’m only getting, you know, I’m getting the same amount of money that somebody that only worked three hours. This is socialism, this isn’t right. But here’s the thing – the reason we say it’s unfair is because our culture has taught us that money equals time. So that if I work one hour, I get $10. If I work two hours, I get $20. If I work three hours, that’s $30 and that’s what is fair. Time equals money. I give you time, you give me back money in proportion to the time I give you and that’s how our society and our culture determine what is fair. Okay. Now, the other thing that we have to do with this verse is because Jesus is being unfair, we now interpret the verse to kind of save Jesus from Jesus.

Pete: [Laughter]

Miguel: So, we say things like, well, Jesus is telling us that when we all get to heaven, we’re all going to get the same amount of blessings. We’re all going to get the same gifts when we get to heaven.

Pete: Yeah.

Miguel: It doesn’t matter if you accept Jesus when you’re young or right before your die on your death bed, we’re all going to equally get the glories of heaven. In this way, Jesus is not unfair and that’s how we interpret it. But again, Jesus is talking to day laborers and what he realizes, and what the day laborers know is that when you work for a day, you get paid for a day and if you only worked half a day and you only get half a day wages, half the people in your house are not going to eat that day. So, only a cold-hearted employer will send away a worker with not enough calories for them to be able to come the next day and work again.

44:46

So again, the message is not about, you know, we’re all going to get to heaven and have the same amount of blessings. The message is that the worker has an obligation to be ready to work when called and the employer has an obligation to pay them enough so they could live that day and come back the next. And now compare this to our culture in where we talk about things like a living wage, which means that most wages are not enough for you to have a living of substance. We pay people so that they cannot afford housing and clothes and food, and we call them the working poor because they’re poor even though they’re working full time. So you see, to read the text from the perspective of the day workers, of the poor, it’s a whole total different interpretation than reading it from middle class economic privilege.

Pete: And I think another assumption that people might make about that parable is why the workers are showing up at different times, and it might because they’re lazy. So, they don’t deserve to get what the other people get, which is another assumption that probably comes from a perspective of privilege. Like, you know, you just roll out of bed at 4:00, you show up for work at 5:00, and you get paid the same. Well, that’s not fair. The guy didn’t work for it. Well, you know, we’re making assumptions about the nature of the worker that might really have, frankly, nothing to do with that story at all.

Miguel: And not even making assumptions, we are imposing upon a text a backstory that does not appear in the text and the text does not support. Because the text talks about the employer going to one location and finding some workers and going to another location where there are also workers who just got, who wasn’t picked yet. So, he sends them in. So, the workers were there from the beginning and it’s the employer who didn’t show up until much later.

Pete: Right. Well, yeah.

Miguel: But you’re right, what you do is we try to add stuff to the stories so as, so the story could fit into our particular world view.

Pete: Yeah, right. And if that worldview is part of the problem rather than the solution for justice, that takes an extra amount of examination to make sure that we’re not doing that which takes humility and just an awareness, really. I mean, I find when people become aware, they tend to want to think about this a little bit more. But sometimes, we’re just unaware, so. Alas. Well, listen, Miguel, we could talk for hours about this because I know that we’re both learning a lot, but we probably need to wrap it up. So, how can people find you online? Do you have a website, all that kind of stuff?

Miguel: Yes, I do. My website is http://drmigueldelatorre.com/.

Pete: Okay.

Miguel: And that’s the best way to get ahold of my website, but all my books are there, articles, as well as how to get ahold of me.

Pete: Okay. Do you have a blog too?

Miguel: I do and it’s called Our Lucha, which is also tied into the website, so the website has the link to the blog.

Pete: Okay. It’ll take everybody there, so great, okay.

Jared: Excellent. Well thank you so much Miguel, for coming in and expanding, I think, like you said, being able to be that for a lot of our listeners. A different voice, a different way of seeing the Bible and encouraging us to continue on that path. Thank you so much.

Miguel: It was my pleasure, thanks for having me on your show.

Pete: Okay, see ya.

Miguel: Adios.

[Music begins]

Pete: Well folks, thanks again for listening to another episode and I learned a lot, Jared learned a lot, it was pretty cool.

Jared: One thing to draw your attention to, and I kept thinking about it throughout this podcast, is on our website, https://peteenns.com/, we have a store there, and there’s a shirt that says all theology has an adjective.

Pete: Yes.

Jared: And that’s pretty much what this episode was about and trying to convey is all of our theology has an adjective. We all have a social context.

Pete: And if you don’t understand that, you definitely need to buy the t-shirt.

Jared: If it’s too much grammar for you.

Pete: Yeah. You just need to buy it to remind you of what you need to be doing and learning and all that stuff.

Jared: Yeah, but you can look at that shirt. We have other stuff on there too if you want to continue to learn. On the website we also have courses, we have one on Jesus and the Old Testament, we have one on truth, talking some of what Miguel was talking about today around subjectivity and objectivity and biblical interpretation. So, we have courses, we have books: Genesis for Normal People. We have other merch, so just check it out, https://peteenns.com/

Pete: See ya folks.

[Music ends]

[Outtakes]

[Beep]

Pete: Miguel, welcome so much to our podcast.

[Beep]

Pete: And now anything on the outro, what are we doing?

Jared: Well, let’s see what comes out. Sorry, Dave. I pretty much always have to do this.

Pete: They are never, ever, ever –

Jared: Prepared.

Pete: Prepared.

Jared: [Chuckles]

Pete: [Bag rustles]

These are so good, they just, they hurt me though. I hate these.

[Crunches food]

I’m eating wasabi peas, David.

Jared: Okay, what am I doing? Yeah, I’m going to try one of those.

Pete: They sometimes make me cry.

Jared: Yeah, wasabi is –

Pete: It’s serious though. It’s like, it’s almost like a healthy snack.

[Continues crunching food]

Jared: Yeah.

[Mumbles incoherently]

Pete: What the heck Jared?

[End of recorded material]

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The Bible and Intersex Believers with Megan DeFranza

Interview with Megan DeFranza: The Bible and Intersex Believers

September 11, 2017

On this episode of the Bible For Normal People, Pete and Jared talk with theologian Megan DeFranza (actually, Megan educates Pete and Jared) on a topic that affects deeply the lives of many, but that few Christians even know is a topic. And Megan might surprise you about what the Bible and church history have to say about it.

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00:00

Pete:  You’re listening to the Bible for Normal People, the only God-ordained podcast on the internet.  Serious talk about the sacred book.  I’m Pete Enns.

Jared:  And I’m Jared Byas. 

[Jaunty Intro Music]

Pete:  Hello everybody!  Welcome to the Bible for Normal People podcast.  Our topic today is the Bible and Intersex Believers and our guest is Megan DeFranza.  She is a theologian and she’s currently serving as a visiting researcher at Boston University School of Theology.  That’s pretty impressive, folks.  Don’t know if I have to tell you that, but it is.

She’s written a wonderful book to sex difference in Christian theology.  This topic, the Bible and Intersex Believers, what does that even mean?  Megan’s gonna help us understand that.  I know I can speak for myself and for Jared a little bit.  I’m 56 years old.  When I was in high school, this wasn’t even on the radar.

Last year, this wasn’t on my radar screen.  It wasn’t until Megan came to speak at Eastern University where I teach, where she’s talking and I was like, “Oh.  I didn’t know any of this.  It’s really interesting.  It affects people’s lives in ways that I can’t even imagine.”

Jared:  After she spoke at Eastern, Pete was telling me about it over dinner and I had to talk with her.  I got on the phone right after that and said, “What is this that you’re doing [laughter]?  I don’t understand.”  It is just very fascinating, so I was just really excited to have her on the podcast and just explain it, even for me to better understand.

Pete:  Right.  It’s one of these issues that is all around us in the sense that it can be somewhat unsettling and uncomfortable and even divisive among people because you have to engage the Bible at some point.  That’s exactly what Megan does.  All she does is engage the Bible and the history of the interpretation of the Bible and theology and all those—

Jared:  The ancient church.

Pete: —the ancient church and ancient readings of biblical text to show a rather surprising story that intersex is not a new issue.  People have been thinking about that and commenting on it for a long time. 

For us, today, people like me and Jared, for who it’s new, where we’ve been, we were never taught this in seminary.  I never really thought through it and never had to, because it wasn’t brought to my attention. 

This is an issue, like other issues (for example, gender equality or same-sex marriage), it’s so potentially volatile, it actually forces you to go back and re-examine your own thinking, your own theology and the biblical text.  You actually can’t get around that once you start listening to people who actually know the topic, how much there is in the Bible that can help us think through some of these kinds of issues that sometimes lay buried or sidelined, because it’s not where we are.

We come at the Bible with our questions already premade.  What these issues do is they force us to ask different kinds of questions we would never have thought up on our own.

Jared:  And unearths our assumptions.  I appreciate how when you look at the Bible through a particular lens, it helps you understand that you’ve been making assumptions all along that you didn’t even know.

Pete:  Right.  Right.

Jared:  Good.  Let’s have this conversation with Megan.

[Jaunty Music]

Megan:  We’ve done our theological reflection.  We’ve done our biblical study, only thinking about these idealized versions of male and female.  That’s not good enough.  We have to do our biblical study and our thinking theologically about what it means to be human and what it means to be a faithful Christian in a way that includes everyone in the community.

We haven’t done that yet.  Let’s start a new conversation.

Jared:  Welcome to the podcast, Megan.  It’s very nice to have you.

Megan:  Thanks so much for having me.

Jared:  The topic today is the Bible and the Intersex Believer.  This term, neither Pete nor I had ever really come into contact with that term before we met you, Megan, last year or a few years ago.

Bring us up to speed on what it is we’re talking about—

Pete:  If we don’t know what it is, nobody knows about this—

Jared:  Clearly.  Clearly—

Pete:  That’s the way I look at it.  Enlighten us all—

Megan:  That’s really common.  The reason it’s new is because it’s a fairly new term for a very old phenomenon.  Intersex is just a broad umbrella term that talk about bodies that don’t fit the medical definitions of male and female.  There’s a mix of male and female characteristics in the same body and that can happen in a lot of different ways.

Jared:  What would be some common things, just concrete examples of—

Megan:  Sure.

Jared:  —where this term might be appropriate for people?

05:00

Megan:  Yeah.  One of the most common kinds of intersex is something called androgen insensitivity.  You have a baby that’s born with XY chromosomes, which is your typical male pattern and they make the gonads, which are neutral in the first few weeks of gestation, go and become testes and starts secreting the typical level of male hormones.

But, at the cellular level, the cells can’t process those male hormones.  The body defaults to female.  On the inside, it looks like male anatomy and on the outside, it looks like female anatomy.  That’s a fairly common kind of intersex.

You can also have the opposite with XX chromosomes and ovaries, with extra production, or higher-than-typical production of androgens that can make a female body look more masculine or anywhere in-between.  Something called congenital adrenal hyperplasia.  All these fancy medical terms, which is why we use the generic “intersex” most of the time.

Pete:  Thank you.  [laughter] Yeah.

That’s very helpful to distinguish intersex from other terms that float around like—

Megan:  Yup.

Pete:  —the alphabet soup.  Right?

Megan:  Mm-hmm.

Pete:  This is something that is a new term that people are maybe beginning to see and maybe come to terms with, for the sake of a population that probably feels, I would imagine, rather isolated and misunderstood.

Megan:  An older term would be hermaphrodite or androgyne.  But those are mythological creatures that have full sets of male and female anatomy, which is humanly impossible, which is one of the reasons we’ve moved away from that language towards stuff that’s more precise, to the particular variations of individual people.

Pete:  You’ve written a wonderful and tremendously scholarly and well-researched book, Sex Difference in Christian Theology, and you have a website that is just very informative.  It’s a wonderful thing to visit if people—if you want to know anything, folks, that’s where you go.

To me, it raises a question of curiosity.  What is it in your life that is driving you to be passionate and supportive of the intersex community?

Megan:  I started this work because I grew up in a very conservative church, where being a woman with a mind was a problem.  I started studying gender and sex difference and biblical scholarship and history and all of that, to try and figure out how I could serve God and not sin, because I happened to have a female body.

That led me to research, to talk about, that there are not just male and female in the world, that there are all these intersex variations as well. 

It was hearing those stories, the stories of individuals, particularly recent medical history, where with our advanced technology, we here in the United States and Europe and elsewhere, have tried to fix intersex.  Doctors come in to a baby that is born with ambiguous genitalia.  They’ll say, “We can figure this out.”  They’ll do plastic surgery on the genitals of a child to make them look more typically male and female.

These surgeries have lasting harm, pain for life, for many many people.  Hearing their stories of physical pain, of feeling unsafe to share their stories in their own faith communities, pastors saying, “Thanks for telling me, but please don’t tell anybody else,” really drove me to realize that my questions about gender and my frustrations as a woman in the church were small in comparison with my intersex siblings in Christ, who had all of these added complications.

It was really hearing their stories that led me to say, “We’ve got to do something about this.”

Jared:  As we get into the topic, it’s just interesting to me the contrast that some of our listeners will have where you’re using lots of medical terms and you’re talking about the technology and the science of a lot of things here. 

How does that connect with the Bible for Normal People?  Say more about how your story coincides as you became aware of all of this within the church community.  When did you start thinking about how the Bible fits into all this?

09:49

Megan:  For me, the Bible was the place I started.  Reading scriptures about women’s place in the church led me to go back and look at history and realize that in Christian history, we’ve thought about gender differences very differently over the last 2,000 years, since the birth of Christ. 

Getting into that history, the history of biblical interpretation, really was the thing that moved me to say, “Wait a minute.  If we’ve thought about this differently in the past, that gives us opportunity to think differently and maybe in fresh ways in the present about differences that, actually, the ancient church was quite familiar with, but we’ve lost that language and knowledge, even though our science is more sophisticated.”

Pete:  Can you give an example or two?  I can imagine people listening, saying, “What are you talking about [laughter]—

Megan:  Sure.

Pete:  —we’re just having this conversation about gender and we thought what we think today is what people have always thought,” which is a typical response, “what I think is what the church has always thought.”

You’re saying it’s more diverse and very early on—

Megan:  St. Augustine, in the City of God, talks about hermaphrodites.  He says, “As for hermaphrodites, also called androgynes, they’re certain very rare, but every culture has people that they don’t know how to classify as male or female.  In our culture, we call them by the better sex.  We call them men.”

Pete:  Hmm.

Megan:  Here’s Augustine saying, “Oh yeah.  Everybody knows about hermaphrodites.  We assign them on the masculine side.”  In the ancient world in Rome and Greece, there were laws for men and laws for women and laws for hermaphrodites and laws for other categories of people that we’ll talk about as we continue here.

Pete:  With Augustine, for example, he lived around when?

Megan:  He lives in the third, fourth century in the Christian Era.

Pete:  That’s a long time ago, right—

Megan:  It is.

Pete:  Was there a tone of judgment in reading Augustine about what we call intersex or was he just matter-of-fact about it?

Megan:  In that passage, he’s very matter-of-fact, actually—

Pete:  Okay.

Megan:  —just stating a fact that everyone’s aware of.

Pete:  Not freaked about it.

Megan:  Not freaked out.  He’s much more concerned about castrated eunuchs and their place and pagan religious cults.  He speaks very harshly of them.  But he’s very matter-of-fact and fairly neutral when it comes to hermaphrodites—

Jared:  You say “neutral.”  It’s interesting to me—what I heard you say and maybe I misheard—“we have this category of people and we as a community assign them to the male side of things.”  Actually, it seems like there’s some social consequences to that.  It would be a more of a place of privilege at that point.

Megan:  Right. For hermaphrodites, Augustine is giving them the male privilege, whereas, it’s interesting—castrated men, men who had their testes or crushed or cut off or birth and who developed differently or who maybe did that later on in life, he says of them, that they are “no longer men,” even though they were born whole.

Pete:  That’s confusing.

Megan:  Yeah.  Sure is.  [laughter]

Pete:  Just to fill things out for the benefit of people listening, can you point to something else that might be instructive for us, another example or two from this ancient church period or from other cultures, perhaps?

Megan:  Certainly, in the Jewish culture, there was a recognition of more than male or female.  The ancient rabbis came up with four additional categories between male and female.

One was a naturally-born eunuch, which they classified more on the masculine side, but not all the way over to the male.

They have another term, called the ilonite (SP?), which was toward the feminine side, but not always to the edge.

They also used the term androgenos for someone whose right in the middle.  They didn’t know how to classify them one way or the other.

They had a fourth term, which was really something they said, “We’re not sure what we’re dealing with now, but we’re pretty sure their sex will become clear over time.”

They developed laws and rituals, religious laws to govern these various persons and would debate those throughout the centuries.

Jared:  Tying it to the Bible itself; we have the ancient church and we have this Jewish tradition, where Augustine and the rabbis recognized different categories, often the argument or the conversation when it comes to the Bible goes back to Genesis.

Megan:  Right.

14:59

Jared:  It is “God created them male and female.” 

Megan:  Right.

Jared:  How does that square with this conversation?

Megan:  That’s where we all start, right?  This is where it’s important to recognize that the Bible’s a big book and that Genesis is not the whole of the story. 

Certainly, we have the beginning.  God creates them male and female in God’s image and blesses them that way.  But does that mean that’s all God created or all God intended?

Now that we have this other language that I just mentioned from the ancient rabbis, we can look for other language in Scripture and that’s what I was so delighted to find in my research is actually none other than Jesus speaks about intersex people with one of these categories that the rabbis mention in Matthew Chapter 19, verse 12, where he’s being asked about whether or not, you can divorce your wife if she burns the toast. 

He’s being asked to weigh in on this ancient debate about how bad does the infraction have to be for you to divorce your wife.

Jesus quotes Genesis 1.  He says, “Don’t you remember God made them male and female.”  He quotes Genesis 2, “For this reason, a man shall leave his father and mother and cling to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.”

Then his disciples say, “Well, if we can’t get out of marriage, maybe we shouldn’t get into it, since our parents are typically choosing a spouse for us.”

Jesus says, “No.  No.  No.  You’re not understanding what I’m saying.  There are those who’ve been eunuchs from birth.  There are those who’ve been made eunuchs by others.  There are those who make themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.  Let anyone accept this who can.”

I like to say, “Let anyone accept this who has any idea what Jesus is talking about.”  [laughter]

The church has debated, “What does this mean?  What did it mean to make oneself a eunuch for the sake of the kingdom?”

We know a lot about the second category.  That’s the castrated men that I just mentioned, very common slaves and very expensive slaves, luxury items, status symbols and sometimes even sex slaves in the ancient world.  Castrati were very very common.  We know a lot about that.

This first category, the eunuch from birth, Jesus’ is drawing on this ancient rabbinic of the eunuch, of the sun as it is in Hebrew, from the day the sun first shone upon the child, we knew this one is different.

Here’s Jesus, in the context of talking about divorce and certainly affirming Genesis, he throws in these other categories and he doesn’t do it with any criticism and he doesn’t say, “But God didn’t mean for it to be this way.”  He just lays it out there.

That pushed me to think, “How do we take Genesis and give it its place in the cannon at the beginning, but also recognize that we have to find a way to read Genesis in a way that fits with these words of Jesus?”  So how do we do that?

That’s what I was—

Pete:  This is beyond, then, that all parts of the Bible are equally ultimate and we read verses and they tell you what to think.  You’re actually describing a dynamism in the Bible that we have to take all this into account somehow and make, not to put words in your mouth, but to make theological decisions on the basis of this grand conversation that’s happening in the Bible.  Is that a fair way of putting it?

Megan:  The theological decisions are how to interpret the description that God made male and female.  It doesn’t say, “God made male and female and anything else is a result of the fall.”  Yet, that’s a very quick theological move that many Christians make.  “If there’s not male and female, then anything else must be a result of sin.” 

Jesus doesn’t do that in Matthew Chapter 19.  The text doesn’t tell us that.  That’s a theological reading we’re bringing to the passage.  Does it say that?

I asked, “Are there ways that we can read Genesis that make it fit with the words of Jesus and with the larger canon all together?”  I think that there are ways that we can.  We could read Adam and Eve as the parents at the beginning of the story, rather than the pattern for all people.

We could read them as the statistical majority.  Most people are clearly male or clearly female.  But just because they are the statistical majority doesn’t mean they are the exclusive model or the only way that God allows humans to be born.

20:13

When we look at other parts of Genesis 1, we recognize that there are all sorts of things that aren’t named in the creation account.  There are three different types of animals.  There are the “fish of the sea, the birds of the air and the creatures that crawl upon the earth.”

These are the three categories of animals that God creates.  But we all know that there are creatures that don’t fit into those categories.  Penguins are birds that don’t fly.  There are other things in the sea other than fish.  There are things that crawl, but they live in the water.  There are amphibians that are both water and land animals.

But I’ve never heard an Old Testament scholar like yourself, Pete, say, “Hey look.  Frogs.  They’re proof of the fall,”  [laughter] because they don’t fit into the three categories of creatures—

Pete:  Hey.  That’s my next blog post.  That’s my next blog post.  [unintelligible]—

Megan:  You’re welcome.

Pete:  What you’re saying is exactly right.  I think the response would be, “In the Old Testament, in the Pentateuch, when you have clean and unclean animals, some of these in-between things, “You don’t eat lobster.”  They’re sea animals, but they also have legs.  They don’t fit.  They’re unclean.  You don’t eat them.

This is something I can imagine people, as sort of a counterpoint to what you’re saying, to draw on that.  How might you navigate that particular issue?

Megan:  The canon gives us the way to do that too.  Even if we see them as outsiders.  Lobsters are outsiders.  Bees are outsiders.  Frogs are outsiders.  Maybe this other category of people who don’t fit into male and female.  Certainly, in the Old Testament, we have, laws for men and laws for women and it doesn’t leave a lot of place for anyone who doesn’t fit those categories.

But fast-forward up to the prophet Isaiah in Chapter 56, he talks about two categories of outsiders, one being the eunuch and the other being foreigners, Gentiles.  They’re complaining, “Hey God, it’s not all that easy to be a eunuch or a Gentile and live in ancient Israel.  The system isn’t set up for us.” 

God says, through the prophet Isaiah to them, in Isaiah 56, “Don’t let the eunuchs complain that I’m only a dry tree.  For to the eunuchs who keep my Sabbath and obey me,” and there’s a long list of things, “I will give to them within my house a name, an everlasting name that’s better than sons and daughters, a name that will not be cutoff.” 

Then he speaks to the foreigners and says that they’re offerings will be accepted on his altar for “my house will be a house of prayer for all the peoples, “ (Isaiah 56:8), which we’re much more familiar with.  That’s in the context of God folding in outsiders, who didn’t fit in earlier chapters of the story.

But God is saying, “Don’t worry.  I’m going to give you a place.”  He doesn’t say to the eunuch, “I’m going to heal you and make you into the categories I intended, either male and female.”  He says, “I’m going to give you something better than sons and daughters.  I’m going to bless you in a way that a Jewish man or a Jewish woman could ever imagine being blessed.  I’m going to give you an everlasting name.”

Pete:  No talk about eunuchs being a product of the fall any more than foreigners would be—

Megan:  Right.

Pete:  —a product of the fall.  There’s nothing in Isaiah—I’m just curious now because I haven’t studied this as closely as you have—but there’s no indication there of how they came to be eunuchs.

Megan:  Nope.

Pete:  Okay.

Megan:  That’s the challenge is that intersex is this broad umbrella term for many different bodily variations. This term eunuch was an umbrella term for many different things.  Sometimes, it’s hard to tell.  Does this mean a castrated eunuch?  Does this mean a natural eunuch?  Is this a position in the court?  We have to do careful scholarship to see what they’re talking about.  It’s not particularly clear in Isaiah and yet, [MUSIC STARTS] there is this idea that however these people came to be eunuchs, God’s blessing them as they are, not requiring them to become something they’re not and healing them into some creational category that we find in Genesis Chapter One and Two.

Jared:  That’s a really good point.  One thing I’m thinking as you guys are talking about the categories and we keep coming back to the words and how that there’s different variations—I want to make sure that we’re being clear—how is intersex different than say transgender which is becoming more and more a conversation, politically and otherwise?  What’s the difference and where does that fit in this conversation?

Megan:  Sure.  Right now, the only difference between intersex and transgender people is that transgender people cannot point to a medical diagnosis.  I know trans people who have said, “I wish I were intersex, because then people wouldn’t think I’m crazy.”  They would be able to say, “Oh no.  Some of their cells are XY.  Some of their cells have just one X.  No wonder they’re body is developing differently or their gender identity is developing differently.”  They don’t have that luxury.

There are some intersex people whose experience is like that of a trans person.  I work with LeeAnn Simon, who’s a wonderful Christian woman and author and she has what I just described.  Some of her cells are XY.  Some have just one X.  Her gonads are part ovarian tissue, part testicular tissue.

At puberty, she didn’t develop one way or the other and chose to, though she was identified as a boy at birth, it wasn’t a fit for her, as an adult, chose to identify as female and to live, to transition.  Her experience is intersex, but it also could be understood as transgender.  That’s not the majority of intersex experiences. 

Sometimes, these terms overlap and sometimes, they don’t.  We have to be [unintelligible]—

Jared:  Where they don’t, what I hear you saying is there’s not a chromosomal or biological thing that you can pinpoint.

Megan:  At this point, where our science is.  It may be that as neuroscience advances, we will be able to pinpoint other things, but we can’t at this point.

Jared:  Good.  I think that’s an important piece of the conversation, that we don’t—

Megan:  Sure.

Jared:  [unintelligible] It’s kind of a Venn Diagram overlap.

Megan:  Yup.

Pete:  Megan, you’ve thought so much about this.  We’ve talked about Augustine a little bit and rabbis and Jesus’ own words.  And Genesis and how that all fits into this.  And Isaiah.   People still come back to Genesis.  Because it’s first, it’s therefore determinative of everything else.

Megan:  Sure.

Pete:  You don’t think that.  Help people walk through why it’s okay not to think that.  It’s at the beginning of the Bible.


Megan:  Sure.

Pete:  You get this wrong, you get everything else wrong.  Plus, it’s all good.

Megan:  Right.  Exactly.  It is important and it does set the stage for the beginning of God’s great redemptive story.  But it’s not the whole of the story.  I see its pride of place is as the opening chapters.  But, at the end of the story, we find a vision of heaven in the book of Revelation where people are included in the worshipping community who don’t fit in the garden.

Here I’m thinking of Revelation Chapter 7, where there’s a great multitude worshipping before the Lamb from every tribe, and nation and language, people group.  If we think about Genesis, we don’t have multiple tribes.  We don’t have racial difference in the Garden of Eden.  We don’t have different languages represented at the beginning.  There are many ways in which this story that starts with these two ends up in full, moving through Adam and Noah and Abraham and all the way through and then folding in the Gentiles and folding in others.

It’s a story that gets bigger and wider and God’s redemptive love goes out.  He blesses the Israelites so that they could be a blessing to all the nations.  It’s this narrow story through these few for the benefit of all, which is why I think we see many things in the book of Revelation that echo things in the Garden. 

There are trees in the beginning and at the end.  But they are not the same trees.  It’s important that we don’t think that we’re trying to get back to the Garden of Eden.  Yes.  It has pride of place at the beginning of God’s story.  But it seems like God’s story gets bigger and more complicated, but also more beautiful and more welcoming than what it is in the first chapters.

Pete:  It’s like the Garden reimagined at the end of the Bible—

Megan:  Yeah.  It is.

Pete:  You’re not actually returning to the Garden.  It’s metaphorical language anyway.

Megan:  Right.

30:04

Pete:  It’s something that is meant to evoke those memories, but then also to go beyond that to something that—

Megan:  It’s called new, right?  It’s called new creation—

Pete:   It’s new.  Right.  Right.

Megan:  It’s not paradise lost and regained, like we’re trying to get back.  It’s a new—God is doing something new at the end of this grand story that is going to have some continuity with what came before and some differences.

Jared:  I appreciate, Megan, what you said about the—you talk about Isaiah and as the story unfolds, it’s interesting that we may start with a garden, but this narrative of inclusivity, of folding more and more people in, really starts just a few chapters later with the start of Israel, with Abraham’s story.

Megan:  Right.

Jared:  Then, from there, we just start including more.  I just appreciated the point about how Israel was then adopted to be a blessing.  Through that, the blessing is this inclusivity.  It’s interesting, in this conversation, that early on in the prophetic literature of Isaiah, that the eunuchs are included pretty early in on that conversation before even—

Megan:  You know what’s even more radical than that?  If we look at Acts Chapter 8, at the first foreigner whose baptized?

Pete:  You took the words right out of my mouth.  Go ahead.  [laughter] Let’s talk about the Ethiopian eunuch—

Megan:  Yeah.  Exactly.  This is the Ethiopian who is a eunuch, who is the very fulfillment of the prophecy in Isaiah, that as the gospel is going out from Judea, through Samaria to the utter ends of the earth, as Jesus said to His disciples at the end of the book of Matthew, and we see these significant baptisms in the book of Acts.  The first foreigner whose baptized is an Ethiopian eunuch, whose made this many-hundred-mile trek to Jerusalem to worship.  Even though he’s an outsider on many levels, he knows there’s only so close he can get to God. 

There’s the Holy of Holies.  There’s the Court of Men.  Outside of that is the Court of Women.  Outside of that, is the Court of Gentiles.  There’s only so close you can get to God as a Gentile and as a eunuch.  He knows that, but he goes anyway.

As he’s reading the prophet, Isaiah, God sends Phillip to him to interpret the Scriptures, to open them and to share with them the good news of Jesus.  This Ethiopian eunuch says to Phillip, “Look, here’s water.  Is there anything preventing me from being baptized?”

I have read that passage my whole life, but until I studied the place of eunuchs in the ancient world, I never understood the significance of that question.

Pete:  Right.  Right.

Megan:  Here he’s asking, “What’s my place gonna be if I follow this rabbi Jesus?

Pete:  Right.

Megan:  Am I gonna be a second-class citizen like I am as a non-Jewish believer?

Pete:  Mm-hmm.

Megan:  Is there a place for me in this new community?  I’m just so frustrated that we don’t have the answer given to Acts.  [laughter] We don’t know what Phillip said.  But we know that one of them commanded the chariot to stop.  They both got out of the chariot and Phillip baptized him.

Pete:  I’ve always read that instinctively, “Is anything preventing me from getting baptized?” as “We’ve got some time on our hands.  Let’s just do this now.”  Not like they’re actually socio-cultural-religious—there’s a matrix there of this. 

Maybe the Bible’s surprisingly not uptight.  [laughter] Go figure.

Megan:  God does tend to surprise us at every turn.

Jared:  I’m wondering—I was just thinking about this connection, this phrase of “foreigners and eunuchs” and how that goes throughout the Bible.  In some ways, do you feel like “foreigners” is clearly throughout the Bible representative of the marginalized throughout, as we get to the Gentiles and others.  Is “eunuchs” also—I’m channeling my upbringing where I want to take that literally, “I’m willing to—you raise some good points, Megan—I’m gonna allow for eunuchs as part of this, but now, I’m going to still exclude others, because it doesn’t say it literally and specifically.

Is there a case to be made in terms of reading and how we read the Bible for taking foreigners and eunuchs as almost representative of this is a narrative of inclusion.  You can’t really accept the eunuchs and exclude transgender people.  You can’t really take this group and exclude that group, because it’s really representative of this radical inclusion. 

What would you say?

35:16

Megan:  First, I would say that in some ways, Gentle or foreigner is not category of the marginalized, if you think just statistically. 

Jared:  Right.  Right.

Megan:  Everyone who’s not a Jew is a foreigner.

Jared:  They’re usually the majority. 

Megan:  Right.  Throughout Israel’s history, they were oppressed by these majority—

Jared:  Yeah.

Megan: —communities, so they were the minority.  You could really read that two different ways.  But definitely, with the eunuchs, we’re talking about people who have been oppressed in many different ways and excluded in many different ways.

Even though the rabbis made space for naturally-born eunuchs, castrated eunuchs couldn’t go to worship in ancient Israel.  Naturally-born eunuchs could.  But they, in some ways, had a double religious duty, because the rabbis are pulling from the laws for men and the laws for women and wanting to make sure all of their bases are covered.

They are this minority group has more to do and it’s harder for them.  I do think that category is one that certainly stands for the outside and the marginalized and those have been excluded, whose voices haven’t been heard, who’ve been considered unclean and not welcome in the worshipping community.

Pete:  Let me ask you a question here, Megan.  I want to try to articulate this clearly.  Following on what Jared just said about eunuchs and the poor and the oppressed, marginalized peoples, you see in Isaiah and then in the New Testament in Matthew 19 and Acts 8, you see a hint, a trajectory of—

Megan:  Yeah.

Pete:  I want to ask you if you agree with this.  If yes, great.  If not, fine.  Tell me why.  It seems like the New Testament itself is not the end of the story.  It’s trajectories.  That’s an important thing to talk about for people who take the Bible seriously.

Megan:  Yeah.

Pete:  The Bible, even the New Testament, does not settle all these questions for us, but is itself part of a moment—

Megan:  Yeah.

Pete:  —that is also moving, right?  And so—

Megan:  Yeah.

Pete:  I gather you’re agreeing with that, so regalias on your opinion [laughter].

Megan:  It’s not—I was helped in this regard.  I remember in seminary reading N.T. Wright’s book, The New Testament and the People of God, where he likens the Bible to five acts in a Shakespearean play, where the fifth act is unfinished.  He sees creation as Act One; the fall as Act Two; Israel, Act Three; Jesus is Act Four; and the Act Five is the Church.

We have only the first few pages of the script in the New Testament, but we are not—we are called to finish the story.  We’re called to live our parts.  We’re not called to be First Century Christians in Rome or in Corinth or in Ephesus.  We’re called to be 21st Century Christians living where we live.

We’re not trying to get back to Ancient Israel.  He keeps saying, “If we’re going to put on this play,” back to the analogy with Shakespeare, “we’re not just going to repeat lines from an earlier part of the story.  We’re going to study the whole story.  We’re going to see the direction it’s going.  We’re going to pick up on those hints that you just mentioned.  If we’re going to put on this play, we’re going to have to improv.”  He uses this term, “faithful improvisation,” where we’re trying to see where the story is going and how do we live in—

Pete:  Right.

Megan:  —our part faithfully, yet without a script.

Pete:  I would add to that Fifth Act, analogously, is that you see that in the Bible anyway because people are winging it.  [laughter]

That’s not a bad way of putting it.  In the Old Testament, you have shifts and changes and new perspectives on things.  It seems inescapable.  To help people to say, “It’s okay to think responsibly and theologically and biblically today about an issue that maybe we have to address in different ways than previous generations.”

39:57

Megan:  We’re so afraid of doing something wrong that oftentimes, we do nothing.  We give the apostles permission to think creatively.  We give Calvin and Luther permission to think creatively, to do something different.  But we rarely give ourselves permission—

Pete:  Why is that?  What are we afraid of—

Megan:  —to do what they did.

Pete:  We should get a therapist [laughter].  What do you think?  You’ve experienced these things.  What—

Jared:  [unintelligible]

Pete:  —are people afraid of?

Jared:  In the congregations that you’re teaching and educating people—

Pete:  Yeah.

Jared:  —what are fears that you find?

Megan:  There’s so much censure in our communities, right?  If you put a toe out of line, there’s shame that’s brought on by the community.  There’s exclusion.  All of these things.  We don’t want that.  We don’t want to put on the outside.  We don’t want to be cast out like these outsiders.  We better keep in line.  We better follow the script.  We better recite the confession in whatever version it’s in and dare not think differently lest we become an outsider.  I think we’re afraid of becoming outsiders ourselves to our very community—

Pete:  Yeah.  Maybe you’re putting the nail on the head there.  The head on the nail rather.  [laughter] Who wants to be an outsider?

Megan:  It’s hard.

Pete:  Yeah—

Jared:  I was going to say—and not to be too theological, but it seems like that’s exactly what solidarity is about, right, is taking that step in saying, “I’m willing to risk becoming an outsider in order to be in community with the outsiders.”

Megan:  Yeah.  It’s hard.  You don’t get to have it both ways.  You don’t get to have solidarity with the marginalized and popularity with the powerful.  It doesn’t work like that.

Jared:  That’s a good phrase—

Pete:  Which brings me to the entire New Testament—

Megan:  [laughter] That’s a good place to go.

Pete:  —which has a thing or two to say and we could throw the prophets in there as well.  It strikes me, Megan, that this issue is one of several issues that the Church is either dealing with or going to have to deal with that really raises to the forefront—I don’t want to put it negatively, but the complexity even in the ambiguity sometimes of theological decisions.

Megan:  Yeah.

Pete:  It’s not easy—

Megan:  It’s not.

Pete:  Living life is hard enough.  [laughter] To think you have to have all the right answers all the time makes it that much harder, but the life of faith may be not as clear as we think and we’re doing the best that we can, and for some people, and you’re one of them, and I think Jared and I are the same, if we’re going to err, we’re going to err on the side of people and lives and their experiences and not a system that we think is immovable and unchanging, because oddly enough, the system, which comes from the Bible, is itself a changing, moving thing—

Megan:  Yeah.

Pete:  —which is a good model for us.  It’s not going to give us the answers to any particular question, but it is going to drive us to think about—you don’t get off the hook by quoting Bible passages.  Life ain’t like that—

Megan:  But you do have to study them and see where they’re pointing—

Pete:  Yup.  Right.  Exactly right—

Jared:  Which is that faithful improvisation, which is a nice connecting.  The faithful is that rootedness—

Megan:  Yeah.

Jared:  —within the text, which your articulation today—I appreciate this conversation of rooting it in these texts and then still saying—but there is still some creativity that has to happen, some improvisation.  That fifth act is up to us on how we’re going to be faithful to that.

Megan:  I don’t have it all figured out, but what I’m trying to do in my book and in my work is to say, “Okay.  We’ve done our theological reflection.  We’ve done our biblical study only thinking about these idealized versions of male and female.  That’s not good enough.  We have to do our biblical study and our thinking theologically about what it means to be human and what it means to be a faithful Christian in a way that includes everyone in the community.”  We haven’t done that yet.  Let’s start a new conversation where we let more voices come and be at the table and it means voices that have been at the table need to be quiet for a while and listen and see if there’s something new to be learned, new perspectives to be had.

Pete:  Right.  Being quiet.  That’s hard.

Megan:  It is hard. 

Pete:  [laughter] Megan, I appreciate the way you put that.  That’s very well put.  Unfortunately, we could talk for hours about all this.  [laughter] So much stuff.  We’re just handling the Bible.  That always comes up in these kinds of conversations.  We’re coming to the end of our time.

In closing, tell us where people can people find you on the worldwide interwebs.  What projects are you involved in, if you are writing another book?  Make sure you tell us about the book that you have written and make sure people know what that is.

45:21

Megan:  Thanks.  You can find me at www.megandefranza.com, pretty easy to find.  You can see the books that I’ve written there, chapters, and other books.  The main one we’ve been talking about today is Sex Difference in Christian Theology.  The subtitle is Male, Female and Intersex in the Image of God, where we spend lot more time talking about all these things. 

You can find me there.  One of the things I’m most passionate about is that I just started a non-profit with my colleague, Leann Simon, who I mentioned earlier and we have a website, www.intersexandfaith.org, where we’re working to educate faith communities about intersex, provide support for intersex people of faith and advocate for the inclusion of all God’s people.

One of the things we’re doing, what I’m really excited about, is we’re in the process of making a documentary film, which right now is entitled Stories of Intersex and Faith, where people of faith—right now, we have Christians and Jews sharing their stories about being intersex and being people of faith and the good parts of that, the helpful parts of that and the difficult parts of being intersex and in a faith community. 

We’re hoping to create that as a full-length documentary.  But I’d also like to use that footage to create a series for churches that will be an educational curriculum, that’s video interviews and others, so that we can have better conversations in our communities.  Because as you said, if we’re not already having these conversations in our churches, you will be next year, or the year after that.

Pete:  Or your kids will force them.

Megan:  Right.

Pete:  Right.

Megan:  I want to help provide some resources for churches having these conversations. 

Pete:  Some video clips are on your website, already, of—

Megan:  Yeah.

Pete:  —you hope to have the longer documentary eventually.

Megan:  Yeah.

Pete:  Okay.  That’s good.

Megan:  Thanks.

Pete:  Listen, Megan, thank you so much.  We had a great time talking to you.  Very informative.  Let’s do this again sometime.

Megan:  Thanks for doing what you do.  Appreciate you inviting me.

Jared:  Absolutely.  Bye.

Megan:  Take care.

[Jaunty Exit Music]

Jared:  You’ve spent another chunk of time with us here on the Bible for Normal People and we’re grateful for that.  Again, if this conversation with Megan DeFranza was meaningful for you, please Google her, look at her website, the subtitle for which is “theology, identity and faithfulness in a changing world.”  That’s at www.megandefranza.com

She’s doing work as a researcher with Boston University School of Theology.

Just look at all the things that she’s doing and support her in the work that she’s doing if this is a topic that connects with you.

We also want to thank everyone who has supported us on Patreon and highlight that there is a growing community there:  www.patreon.com/thebiblefornormalpeople where we have the ability to connect on Slack which is an app, really kind of a chatboard.

One of the subtopics connecting here with Megan is sexuality.  There’s also “talking to your kids about the Bible.”  There’s “science and faith.”  There are all kinds of people there talking about these topics.

We really want to create a safe place where you can explore your questions, your doubts, topics, get advice, get recommendations, share your stories.   You can check that out and more at www.patreon.com/thebiblefornormalpeople.

Thanks again for everyone who has supported us so far.

Everyday Life in Ancient Israel